What’s Your Learning Edge?

The EdgeAdam has started a meme by the name “What’s your learning edge?”. And I’ve been tagged by Ed Mills from Evolving Times. The challenge is to write about what you need or wish most to learn.

First a few words on the idea of edge. The epigraph of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge reads: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” (from the Katha-Upanishad). Pema Chodron often uses the phrase to describe the place where one becomes uncomfortable with new and challenging experiences or feelings. In the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author often discusses the importance of balance between challenge and reward in achieving a state of flow. If something is either too easy or too difficult, flow doesn’t occur. A while back I wrote a philosophical poem called The Edge about the difficulty of making choices.

At this point in my life the edge I wish to explore has nothing to do with reading or acquiring knowledge. Quite the opposite, my edge is to just be rather than always doing. I find that many problems in my life stem from my inability to just be, just be OK as I am, without any corrections, attractions, improvements or alterations. I am admittedly a compulsive doer, a perfectionist and very competitive. I am also a classical musician, where being present is vital. So just being is perhaps the most challenging goal of all for me to learn, and the one thing which may release the most constructive/creative energy for me. So there it is. Just BE. Simple. Perfect. And quite elusive to many of us, I’m sure!

I hereby tag Pamm, Isabella, Hilda of Living Out Loud, William of Integral Options Cafe, Josh of System 13, Scott of Finding Your Marbles. I’ve invited some new bloggers I’ve never met, but I thought it would be a good way to mix things up a bit.

Here’s what do to. To quote the original author of the meme: “Write a post about your “learning edge” and what you’re into these days. Feel free to mention any books you’re reading, classes you’re taking, people you’re learning from or collaborating with, etc. Tell us about the gems you’re picking up, the fun you’re having, etc., especially if they’re shifting the way you look at what you do.”

Alexander Technique and Buddhist Thinking

BuddhaI googled Alexander and Buddhism and found a few articles, but none which directly connected the primary principles of the two.

The Alexander technique teaches us to regain natural and efficient use of the body, with the mechanism of “primary control” as the director of a balanced body. Primary control is a phrase Alexander coined to indicate where the sense of control comes from when one is completely present physically and mentally. Buddhism focuses on the sense of being present as the primary factor in learning about one’s self and relation to the world.

To my knowledge, F. M. Alexander never studied Buddhism. He grew up in Australia and moved to Great Britain. Yet he came up with similar principals to the ancient wisdom of Buddhism using a completely different cultural structure. Western thinking tends to rely on the separation of parts to understand the whole. Mr. Alexander instinctively realized the importance of noticing the whole over the parts. The whole body is not a separation of parts, but a relationship between all of them.

Siddhartha (buddha) studied the methods of his time and used that wisdom to develop his own fresh version before becoming enlightened as Buddha. The teachings of Buddhism show a continuation of ideas from the Bhagavad Gita (balance), Yoga (relationship) and the Ascetics (detachment). Detachment as a tool for awareness is not new to Buddhist thinking. Buddha refined the idea to help alleviate the suffering he saw in those who attach too much importance to feelings and desires.

Alexander started from scratch, learning from his own bodily misuse. He observed himself carefully in an array of mirrors and found that only by inhibiting his ingrained habits of body use could he rediscover natural use. However, his detailed and continued observations led him to deeper patterns.

He learned the importance of being present to regain natural body use. Bad habits of body use are the product of lack of mental and physical presence. Going one step further, he found that changing habitual patterns required “inhibition” of those patterns, not just being present while they happened. Inhibiting one’s behavior while observing it takes a certain detachment. For example, when the phone rings the urge to jump and answer it can be inhibited until one consciously chooses to stay present and then move with that presence to answer the phone with physical quality.

So, the basic principals of detachment and being present are mutual to the Alexander Technique and Buddhist practice. Yet each teacher came from a vastly different time and culture. I am sure this subject could be explored more rigorously. But I am putting out a simple version for your interest, and perhaps to spark someone else’s interest in the subject.

I also wrote further thoughts on the subject of detachment in my recent article The Paradox of Detachment.

Spirituality without Religion

Many Mushrooms make a great stewIs it possible to follow a spiritual path without the guidance of any organized religion? I certainly think so. But I’ve learned the hard way that there is no easy way. I’ve been wandering around for years looking for clues to guide me. I’ve tried easy fixes, pat little formulas like “Be here now” or “This is It” or “God is Love” or “The Path of Least Resistance”. Nothing makes living with quality and integrity easy. The only real choice you have is how you learn and grow from your experiences.

Organized religion offers a tested path. Sometimes it’s better to seek a known path rather than potentially getting lost finding your own. On the other hand, getting a little lost is a sure way to learn the territory well. As with any solution, one size doesn’t fit all. Perhaps a hybrid mish-mash of the best of all paths would be more adaptable to different needs. My exploration has certainly exposed me to wisdom I would not have “invented” on my own.

What I’ve found in my search for spiritual growth are a few simple rules (patterns*) which have no particular religious affiliation, but which can be found in almost any religious prescription. I like to think they are deeply thought common sense. (*since writing this, I have decided that the word “rules” has too strict a connotation- please allow me to call them “patterns“)

Pattern 1: The existence of a “soul” which lasts after this life is impossible to prove. Yet, though there may be no “spirit” after life, the fact is, our energy is never born and never dies. A cloud is water vapor, which may become rain, then a river, then steam or ice. So there is in fact a continuation of “me”, albeit in a different form. One could even deem this “continuation” of energy a spiritual axiom, though few would find it comforting. Consider this. No matter how important or “everlasting” you wish your personal self to be, your life will inevitably pass into some other form which can never really be known. So the bottom line is that we need to make the best, best, best possible life we can with the one we have.

Pattern 2: The fact is, we are not separate from the rest of the world. Our bodies are only minimally separated by porous skin from the air around us and from the rest of the physical world. Because of this illusion, it is incredibly easy to believe that we are alone and separate from the world. If we believe this long enough, we make it true. Our minds will make it true. Many of us live in this lonely hell. But if we can stay open to the idea that we are part of something greater than our individual self, we can, with lots of patience and persistence, thrive on our intrinsic connection to the world. Everything we do affects more than just ourselves. Caring for our bodies is caring for the world. Caring for a family member is helping all humanity. Caring for a plant or animal is embracing compassion. Helping planet Earth helps yourself. A smile felt from your heart goes to someone else’s heart. On the other hand, anger at one’s self is harmful to the world, and on and on through all the emotions of the lonely, false self. (this rule is the hardest for me to realize, by far, yet it is perhaps the most important)

Pattern 3: Accept your uniqueness and begin by loving yourself. You are the beginning of the rest of the world. Embrace this fact. You cannot love anyone if you can’t love yourself. I do not mean smug self-adoration over all others. This kind of false self love is toxic. It indicates that pattern two, our universal connectedness, has not been noticed. One must be responsible for one’s actions and even one’s thoughts. Only we can monitor our own psychological reality as it occurs to us. Hateful thoughts and words are only a breath away from similar actions.

Pattern 4: Learn from mistakes, yours and others. Life is like music. Becoming spiritual means playing that music more beautifully, with more meaning. Pay attention. No matter how much we read or listen to the teachings of others, we tend to have to “reinvent the wheel” to some degree. Ideas for improving your ability to give meaning to life’s music come from multiple sources: from friends, from books, TV shows, blogs, from a pet’s gentle eyes, a sweet smelling flower, the sound of water, and especially from your own inner voice. Listen to your conscience. A junior High School math teacher once said to our class, “Your conscience is like a pin prick which reminds you of what your gut is telling you. Ignore it long enough and you wear the pins down. Sooner or later you don’t feel the prick.” Don’t ignore your conscience. Don’t ignore your heart.

Pattern 5: Forgive as you go. There is a letting go in this feeling, letting go of impermanence, clarifying your spiritual permanence in a flawed world. Forgive yourself and forgive others, over and over, second to second, day after day. Forgive with each breath. Forgiveness is letting go. Cleanse yourself with forgiveness. If you remain in a constant state of forgiveness, you are much more able to learn from mistakes and to love through suffering. This is a paradox. But the fact is, a clean slate is easier to write on.

As forgiveness soaks through every cell of my existence, an airiness fills me, a porous lightness which allows pain, suffering, fear, anger and resentment to pass through me, leaving more room for growth and love.

The Cycle of Breathing

Breath HemispheresAs I lay in bed one night, unable to sleep, I decided to watch my breath as a mediation. Not only is breathing vital to living, it holds the path to relaxation and ultimately can help us gain control over our lives. Symbolically, it represents various cycles of life: birth-death, day-night, Summer-Winter.

The delicate complexity of natural breathing is easily flummoxed by attention from the breather. It needs to be observed rather passively. It’s like looking for a star in the night sky which can only be seen by gazing slightly away from the actual object of attention.

If you wish to observe your own breathing cycle, you first need to be “in the room”, completely relaxed, present in the space you fill. Be aware of the parts of the room you cannot see, to the sides and behind you. Now you can sense the three-dimensionality of your breath from the breath and body itself, rather than from any “ideas” you read in this post. Keep your mind out of your body’s way while you observe it.

While lying in bed, I relax my awareness into the room (with eyes open). I allow my body to soften to the point I feel I am melting into the mattress. I feel heavy. My mind stops thinking, and I allow my body to do its own thing. My eyes, nose, sinuses, throat, chest and abdomen relax deeply, sinking into the bed. All my limbs follow suit. (It is possible to do this sitting in a chair or standing, but it’s harder to allow the body to relax as deeply.)

I take a huge breath and sigh out. Near the end of this exhale, the breath seems to stop for a few seconds. It does not, in fact, stop. The breath naturally lingers at its end. The exhale slows dramatically, but continues almost imperceptibly for a number of seconds. So there is no “end” of the breath, really. It just slows to a dead calm as the body prepares for the next inhalation. Be gently aware of this beautiful sighing diminuendo and enjoy it. Let it linger as long as it needs to build the energy for the next inhalation. It may be surprisingly long, anywhere from one or two seconds to 20 seconds or more, depending on how relaxed you are and how deeply you are breathing.

Before the inhalation begins, there is a desire, a warm yearning behind the heart. This “need” is a wonderful, deep and satisfying feeling, especially just before the inhalation beings. It’s impending fulfillment gives it a glowing anticipation. As this need begins to fulfill itself, the breath will appear to fill from the inside out, as if by itself. The reason for this feeling is that the body and mind are not interfering with the process. The muscles are working naturally. When this happened to me, I felt giddy, as if witnessing some rare, shy bird emerge from hiding within a tree.

The breath will fill effortlessly. Give in to it. Relax into it. This is tricky during observation. Depending on how relaxed and calm you are, the back will expand and fill along with the stomach and pelvis. The breath will fill under the arms and up into the tops of the shoulders. Remember to “let” this happen, don’t interfere. It’s amazing how much the body can expand and open to accommodate a full, deep breath. You may notice the neck and spine “gathering”, shortening. If lying on a bed, your head will slide down the pillow as the body expands.

Remember, don’t “make” anything happen. Just notice. Keep the attention in the room as this miraculous process of breathing happens. Keep the chattering, possessing mind from scaring the shy bird away. If it does interfere, that’s OK. There are more breaths to come. Look forward, not back. This is a wonderful process. Enjoy it. There’s plenty of air to go around, at least for awhile longer.

Now we are at the top of the breath. The inhalation can take anywhere from 2 to 15 seconds. As with the out breath, it will slow as the lungs fill. What happens now?

The turn from inhale to exhale is subtle. It is merely a change of angle, not backtracking the path of inhalation. Again, the breath never stops, anytime. It moves in a circle, or perhaps a wave. Try not to hold the breath at the top. I think of this part of the breath as being at the top of a slow motion roller coaster ride. There’s a moment where you feel weightless. It’s fleeting but unmistakable. The greatest “lift” is right after the top. So it is with the breath. There will be a floating sensation at the curve from inhale toward exhale, and before you know it, you are deflating. Here again, the feeling will come from behind the heart, as if the air is just disappearing from inside you. There is no pushing, no effort.

As you ride the breath down again to the bottom curve, your may notice your body elongating as it closes into the next cycle. This is natural and normal. The speed of exhale will slow gradually as the lungs empty. We are again at the bottom of the breath, the sweet diminuendo before the next cycle turns.

There is no beginning, no end. The breath is like a wave, or a turning wheel. Learning to be aware of something so intrinsic to who we are can engender a calm attitude and deep satisfaction. From there we can direct ourselves almost anywhere.

May you Breathe Deeply and Live Deeply.

Thinking Spiritually Outside the Self

One of the most difficult aspects of spiritual thinking, (thinking which reaches beyond the small, petty self) is grasping how that self is an illusion.

The real Self, with a capital “S”, is the whole world, for our skin is only a thin membrane connecting our inner “self” with our outer “Self”. Yet most of us live our lives basing decisions on that small, illusory sense of lonely, separate, finite existence. No spiritual practice is worth anything without this important premise in its teaching.

For now, I would like to explore how this idea affects our thinking about world problems. We, myself included, tend to be satisfied with accomplishing the tasks set before us to achieve our daily goals, ideally to obtain and maintain health, security, community, career, relaxation and some kind of spiritual practice.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself worn out after doing what’s necessary to maintain my life. I don’t like to face too many new tasks, or at least not ones which seem altruistic, reaching for some “unobtainable” or far distant goal. Yet we have no choice but to commit any extra time and resources to alleviating issues such as hunger, disease, genocide, or extreme poverty.

Of course, there are really no specific consequences to ignoring this truth. We can live our lives, as many do, striving only to better ourselves, regardless of how it affects others. Nothing really bad will happen to us, except we will be ignoring our most precious gift, our compassion, our conscience. After long enough, we forget what it feels like to feel for others. We can rationalize that it was just meant to be that way. Tough cookies. Perhaps this is why religion is still useful in a way. It keeps people guessing as to what their punishment will be if they don’t at least try to act toward some altruistic ideas.

We cannot claim to live fully conscious and ignore those issues on a daily basis. That would mean living in denial, a kind of zombie trance, an illusion of happiness. There’s a hollowness to this kind of living. Often, we try to fill this “hollow leg” with more things, more food, more business, new improved living, even a kind of endless searching for a spiritual practice which “fits” us.

Ultimately, the answer is simple. Take daily time to feel and nourish the deep pain of admitting how others suffer. This could be in the form of prayer or contemplation. There are specific practices in Buddhism which offer a structured building of compassion, starting with sending compassionate, loving thoughts to those you love, then to those you don’t love, then to strangers you know, and on to all sentient beings. It’s very healing.

Then, give what you can financially. Be really honest with yourself. Do you need that new CD? Can you spare that money for someone more needy?

When reading Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith, I was amazed to find out that secular societies, particularly those from Northern Europe, give by far the most generous support toward relieving the suffering known to exist in so much of the world. Food for thought.